It was autumn of the year 1947. On 25 October, Bakr Eid was to be celebrated. People were therefore completing tasks in the orchards and the fields so that they could celebrate the festival happily.
Most people—Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians alike—were unmindful of the political happenings outside their homes. They were not envisioning anything untoward or unexpected befalling them. Most people had peaceful lives and that seemed to have lulled everyone into a state of unhealthy unconcern. They were unaware that the enemy was already in their backyards, stealthily intruding into their placid lives even as they were attending marriage feasts and preparing for other festivities.
Over centuries, the topography of the Kashmir Valley and its relative inaccessibility have made the people of the region pretty relaxed and unconcerned about the rest of the world. For most Kashmiri people, anything and everything south of the ancient Panchala Deva range (now known as Pir Panchal) was known as ‘Punjab’. New things were adopted gradually and cautiously because disruption in the existing way of life was resisted.
When the first British Auxiliary Air Force bi-planes flew into Srinagar sometime in the late 1920s, there was immense excitement among the people of the city initially. Many flocked to the roofs of their homes along the river Jhelum to get a glimpse of the flying machines. In the excitement, many people fell off the roofs and hurt themselves badly or drowned in the river below. A poet recounted the sad events a few days later with a heartbreaking verse in Kashmiri:
Havai jahāz ha āv Mulki-Kashmīr Yemi-yemi vuch temi kor tobė-taksīr (Airplanes have come to Kashmir, but those who saw them were horrified and repentent)
Officers and soldiers from the newly formed Pakistani Army, along with expert mountaineers from amongst the tribals of the North West Frontier Provinces, formed the motley kabalie attackers who invaded the state of Jammu and Kashmir on 22 October 1947. The Maharaja was dreaming of keeping the state independent, and was therefore warding off pressure from both India and Pakistan to join them. The vacillating monarch obviously riled the tempers of the leaders in Pakistan because they had imagined that Kashmir—with about 66 per cent Muslims in the population at that time—would automatically be a part of the new ‘Muslim’ nation. Since that had not happened even two months after Independence from the British, the raiders made a surprise attack coming in from the west.
Baramulla was the first big city to face the brunt of the marauding soldiers and tribals. To the northwest of Srinagar, it was a bustling cosmopolitan town, with St Joseph’s College, a convent, a mission hospital run by the Mill Hill Fathers of London, Hindu temples, gurdwaras, and many beautiful homes belonging to the citizens who were engaged in trade and commerce with regions to the west, north, and south of the state. Two days before Eid that month, a Chevrolet car carrying a young Pakistani Army officer directed the townsfolk to welcome the coming raiders and give them support. Then a day later the savage tribals descended from the mountains to the west and overran the town.
Baramulla witnessed immense brutality. Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were killed. The nuns in the convent were raped and killed. Those who had sympathies for Pakistan were horrified at the looting, the killing, and the destruction that they witnessed. More tribals descended on the town in lorries a day later and men, women, and children took refuge in the oddest of places. Many died after suffering terribly.
Pakistan’s President Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who came to Kashmir for a period of almost three months in the summer of 1944, was accorded a series of massive receptions during his stay in the Valley. He also interacted with a host of people, especially those who were a part of the National Conference as well as those who still retained their allegiance to the Muslim Conference. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who in 1931 had rejected the ‘two-nation theory’ and had opted for a more secular and broad-based, all-inclusive platform of governance, had carved out the National Conference from the erstwhile Muslim Conference, and had dissociated himself from the communal approach being pursued by the Muslim League (and the Muslim Conference in Kashmir).
I surmise that the meetings that Jinnah had with political leaders, opinion-makers, and members of the Hindu, Sikh, and Christian communities in Kashmir in 1944 gave Sheikh Abdullah a glimpse of how things might pan out—for him and his associates in the National Conference—if he were to go with Jinnah’s suggestion of joining Pakistan. It must have jarred his Kashmiri sensibilities to think of being a part of a nation based on something as non-monolithic as Islam. With an enormous following among the people of Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah was clear that Kashmir’s destiny would be determined by its own people and not a ‘popular leader of Muslims’ from Bombay.
The simmering animus between Sheikh Abdullah and Jinnah must have got worse, when in one of the public rallies that had been organized for Jinnah he compared Sheikh Abdullah to a rotten egg, saying that, ‘He can neither be kept nor can he be thrown away because of the stink he’ll raise.’ This would not have endeared Jinnah to the Kashmiris either! In fact it is said that Jinnah’s disdain for the Sheikh and his contempt for the popular leaders of his time (including the Maharaja) rubbed the people of Jammu and Kashmir the wrong way. There was no love lost for Jinnah thereafter.
When the monarch of Jammu and Kashmir took his own time to take a call on the accession of his kingdom, and when news of the raids by Pakistani soldiers and armed tribals in Baramulla spread, it was Sheikh Abdullah—the lion of Kashmir—who roared against the attack by the Pakistani raiders, and in a matter of days galvanized his party workers, students, schoolchildren, college girls, boys, men and women to protect the citizens of the state from the attackers.
The war cry of this citizens’ militia was ‘Hamlavar khabardar! Ham Kashmiri hain tayyar! Jo ham say takrayega, pash-pash ho jayega.’ (Beware warmongers! We Kashmiris are ready to fight you and throw you out). At that time, without concerns for caste, creed, colour, or religious affinity—all Kashmiris were united under the leadership of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The entire population trusted him and his leadership. This was also a chance to put Jinnah in his proper place by demonstrating that the people of the state of Jammu and Kashmir demanded respect for themselves and those who represented them.